Judgement and mercy as slow as the trees grow

Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height. – Micah 3:12

The temple mount “like a wooded height” – a curse of de-civilization is pronounced here. Just as man’s body returns to dust, so his works return to nature.

Trees take a terribly long time to grow, but they do eventually. A friend of mine used to work as accountant for Weyerhauser, which produces lumber and paper. He told me an interesting fact. The company has been buying up forests all over America for over a hundred years and now controls about 14 million acres. And here’s the deal – after it logs an area, it plants new trees. And then they just sit and wait. Whole careers come and go and generations pass, and the forest grows up from nothing and then after about 50 years, all the trees are back and they cut them down again. It’s a completely sustainable and renewable resource because they make sure to cut them down at the same rate they are growing up. Environmental advocates might be horrified at the prospect of cutting down a million acres of forest, but what if you could prove you had another million acres growing up right next to it that you had planted earlier? That takes patience and planning to pull off.

Part of Micah’s curse in this passage is that a hill that was richly developed by man would turn back into a forest. That doesn’t happen overnight – it takes an entire generation for those trees to grow up. It has to sit there quite a while – until your children are old. We would have our works today rise up with ridiculous rapidity. Instead of a cathedral taking a hundred years, the new highest sky scraper rises in Dubai on the backs of slaves and cranes in only 2-3 years. We have overnight billionaires born of tech acquisitions. We want to get rich quick and cram as much into our lives as possible, extending it with surgery, Viagra, and dialysis. Our lives are fleeting and we desire things NOW lest we whither away before they arrive.

I think we project this impatience on God as well. We imagine his judgements to be in the form of lightning strikes or fire from heaven. That’s how we would have it done after all. But scripture shows us a God whose judgements are often slow, lasting through a great deal of time. He gives us over to sin for a while. He let’s things work themselves out for a while and then rescues us. He sends Israel to exile, not for a week, but for 70 years. The remnant is literally all pushing up daisies by then. It’s their grand children who see new things take shape. The temple mount is hosed long enough for tall trees to come back.

And then, in a sense, his saving of us is the same way. Suddenly on the third day was death defeated and Satan actually cast down “like lightning”. But then oh so slow was the rest of the redemptive work – as if a small seed was planted to grow into a garden to cover the earth. Such is His mercy for us – it can be terribly slow too. We see death as some tragic interruption or disappointment in this process. He does not. The seed is still growing.

Satan’s reflexive thought

Psalm 91:3-13 is a fascinating passage. Ancient Hebrews scholars we are told considered it to be a description of demonic attack. Several passages in the New Testament seem to confirm the metaphor, especially the long ending of Mark.

Surely He will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the perilous pestilence… You shall not be afraid of the terror by night nor of the arrow that flies by the day nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness…etc.

One person in particular seems to have this passage down very well. Indeed, it is Satan himself, who quotes verses 11-12 when tempting Jesus:

For He shall give his angels charge over you, To keep you in all your ways. In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.

It seems to me that Satan is obsessed with himself. So what would be his favorite passages of scripture anyway? The ones about him of course! His thought is reflexive – ever festering on himself, closing back in on himself and hungry to suck in others into his despair and fascinated failure.

Rene Girard’s work shows us that the modern conception of the human being as an independent, autonomous free-thinking well of desire is completely false. We THINK our desires and tastes and visions come from within and we stew about them – scheming a way that we might bring them to fruition. But no, in reality our desires come from others. They come from our formation over time in our communities and we get them by imitating the desires of others in our proximity. Our deepest held desires – for companionship – and to make things – comes from our creator.

Satan is the same way, not just with his desires but with his very being. He believes his own lie – that the making of things is his own idea and not something he enviously copies from the Creator. His aim and aura is to always draw us into the same deception. In doing so, we become more concerned with ourselves. We are moved to the center of the universe, with our loved ones and even God on the periphery.

Dorothy Sayer’s captures some of this mystery of the Satan (articulated by Augustine and others as well) in her play ‘The Devil to Pay’.

FAUSTUS: Who made thee?
MEPHISTOPHELES:God, as the light makes the shadow.
FAUSTUS: Is God, then, evil?
MEPHISTOPHELES: God is only light,
And in the heart of the light no shadow standeth,
Nor can I dwell within the light of heaven
Where God is all.
FAUSTUS:What art thou, Mephistopheles?
MEPHISTOPHELES: I am the price that all things pay for being,
The shadow on the world, thrown by the world
Standing in its own light, which light God is.

So Satan is the father of lies who, though just a shadow, sees himself as the light. When we imitate our false father, our thoughts reflex back to ourselves – to our desires and their centrality.

Demons and their kin are the ones most trapped in the swirl of this obsession. Like their leader, their dearest topic is themselves.


Curiously enough, I think this notion is captured perfectly in a scene from that disappointing film sequel, The Matrix: Reloaded. Persephone helps our heroes Neo and Trinity to rescue a prisoner. Who is guarding him? Some werewolves. What are they doing while they sit around? Watching a vampire movie. It’s supposed to be ironic and slightly funny, but frankly, I think it’s exactly what real demons would watch on TV. It’s their favorite subject, just like Satan has all the parts of scripture memorized where he gets a few lines. He doesn’t even seem to care that he dies in the end. He just can’t get enough of… himself, for the time being.

Plagiarism and the scrubbing of history in sermons and popular Christian writing


Derek Rishmawy recently posted on the topic of plagiarism in sermons. He asks a good question – something along the lines of: “If just about everything I know I got from reading and studying a hundred other thinkers, is there ever really anything in my sermons that isn’t ‘stolen’ in some sense? Do I really need to be apologizing for that all the time?”

I think the answer is: “No, of course not”, but for a lot of reasons, I would be thrilled to see any step, even the smallest, toward attribution of sources in preaching, as well as the writing of popular books.

Somehow in 20th century evangelicism, we developed a school of preaching where all history between antiquity and the pulpit this very moment is essentially hidden. I was surprised to reflect on the fact that growing up in various baptist and pentecostal churches, I heard literally hundreds of sermons about the atonement, usually with some passage from Romans as the primary text. Yet I had never once hear a reformer or church father cited a single time. I was nearly twenty years before I first even heard Augustine’s name mentioned during a sermon, and of course I didn’t know who he was. I’m not kidding. It’s as if the entire lineage of our past had been scrubbed – there was no man, no thought, no development, in between the apostle Paul and you! In speaking with many of my peers, I discovered that my Reformed friends sometimes had it a little better off, but often not much so and many others had similar experiences to my own.

Two thousand plus sermons (long ones too!) and multiple times reading through the entirety of scripture I had, but I could articulate virtually nothing about the history of the church or the development of its beliefs. There was of course a vague sense that Luther (one of the tiny handful of names that was occasionally invoked) had helped rescue us from the “works righteousness” of Rome. I also recall hearing once or twice that some guy named Calvin wasn’t to be trusted because he was into “once saved always saved”. There was also a sense that we owed something (what exactly besides some hymns was unknown) to John and Charles Wesley. This is all somewhat embarrassing of course to look back on, but it’s entirely the truth.

Now, lest I turn and bite the hand that fed me too sharply, I must stop and say that I experienced much rich bible teaching in my youth. The gospel was expounded a hundred different creative ways, as well as the reasoning behind the bulk of New Testament moral and pastoral teaching. I had a firm grasp on the history of Israel, the typology of Christ in the prophets, the beauty of the Psalms and Revelation, the layers of meaning in nearly all the parables, and the value and importance of quite literally every single chapter in every book. Some support from classical apologetics made an appearance as well. I was given many treasures, and my teachers and pastors and parents cared deeply about the content and the communication of it.

Today, I realize that when I was taught to read Paul, it was through the lens of Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Spurgeon, and as well as popular teachers still living like John MacArthur or Jack Hayford or whoever the pastor was steeped in. The catch is that everything was always presented as being RIGHT THERE in naked scripture without the need for centuries of study. The thought life of one who loved God and studied his word was a room with bare walls and a bible on the table. There was no library. The only other tome that was standard equipment was a Strong’s exhaustive concordance. What was missing was the great cloud of witnesses, the saints that had all gone before. They were there of course, but being dead, only a nameless vapor. Discovering their names in the past decade has greatly enriched my faith, not crushed it. Why was I never introduced before?

Earlier this month in a comment thread about a similar topic, Alistair Roberts brought up the popular ‘myth’ (so the speak) of the Bereans from Acts 17.

Finally, because it is so commonly brought up, let me tackle the Berean thing. People—generally independent evangelicals—have this romantic notion of the Bereans as a group of studious individuals who all individually studied their individual study Bibles to see whether Paul and Silas were correct. Presumably if they had blogs, they would have been debating it online in a spiritually egalitarian manner. Unfortunately, this is a fairly nonsensical reading. The Bereans were in fact a synagogue of the Jews (Acts 17:10). It is quite possible that they only had one copy of the (Old Testament) Scriptures between them. Many wouldn’t have been able to read them at all, even in translation. The word for ‘examined’ is one suggesting a more formal, legal-like process. What this probably involved was a daily assembly of members of the synagogue community, with a trained reader bringing forth evidence from the synagogue’s copies of the Scriptures in an extended communally witnessed cross-examination of Paul and Silas’ teaching by the synagogue’s leaders. This is a very, very far cry from the idea that our discourse should be about every Christian with their personal Bible and their personal blog.

I was frequently encouraged to “be a Berean” and study the scripture for myself, and I did! But the whole time I was heavily influenced by a hundred people that had gone before me whose existence or work I knew nothing of. Where did their influence stop and that of the latest movie or novel I’d eaten up start? I couldn’t tell you because these things didn’t have names.

I wonder if this approach is uniquely American? We like to see ourselves as “rugged individuals” in a “new world” detached from the rest history, even though our nation is still young. I think the narrative of our ecclesiastical history has been unduly shaped by this as well. I also wonder if anti-Catholicism is largely the motivation behind this scrubbing of sources. Maybe to some degree, but the Reformers and their children were given just as short of shrift as well. Something larger seems to have been at work.

One oddity that DID frequently make it into the footnotes was the work of modern archeology. The Dead Sea scrolls, studies from the artifacts of Jericho, and even references to the metallurgy of the Philistines I recall being cited. I suspect these were favored as they seemed to carry a certain “scientific” air of authority about them. Trapped partially in the thrall of Modernity, we admired men with sophisticated instruments rather than old philosophers.

I’m not sure if this was all some attempt (unconscious even) to prop up a certain kind of individualized biblical literalism, but I can’t help but think this way of dealing with sources is partly to blame for how we deal with current popular authors and writings today. If you never cite anyone younger than Paul, you aren’t going to mention Tim Keller either. If your pastor just lifted all his ideas from his Matthew Henry commentary without ever acknowledging its existence, then you are just following in your father’s footsteps by doing the same with N.T. Wright’s material. There is a certain posture of humility that has to be taught. One has to see respect given to elders before one knows what it even looks like. How can one have good manners at the dinner table if they’ve never observed their parents sit up straight and use a napkin? We’ve lost something important by covering up our roots so much the side effects have come home to roost.

Does this mean that I am advocating we all go out of our way to copiously cite sources and turn all our writing and preaching into a history lesson or bibliography? Absolutely not. That would largely ruin them and turn them into something else entirely. I don’t think the medium of a sermon is a place to get bogged down in footnotes. The same goes for most devotional literature. It doesn’t take very many interruptions to undermine the communication. But I think zero, all the time, is patently unethical. I would love to see just a little bit of disclaimer, a little bit of humility, be the norm. In the age where many have Google and Wikipedia in their pocket, acting as if all our understanding appeared out of thin air will not do. People in the modern age have been burned too often with slick words. We need to reestablish some fidelity in our communication and that is going to mean more nods to our ancestors and peers.

By all means, learn everything you can and steal the best stuff! But then make restitution by simply being up front about where it came from. I think we have a lot of trust to gain and nothing to lose in doing so.


I’ve been reading The Lord of the Rings to the kids every night for the past several months. Last night, I ran into this wonderful passage where Tolkien describes the land of Ithilien. There is so much wonderful vocabulary packed into one paragraph here! Take a whiff.

Many great trees grew there, planted long ago, falling into untended age mid a riot of careless descendants; and groves and thickets there were of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay; and there were junipers and myrtles; and thymes that grew in bushes, or with their woody creeping stems mantled in deep tapestries the hidden stones; sages of many kinds putting forth blue flowers, or red, or pale green; and marjorams and new-sprouting parsleys, and many herbs of forms and scents beyond the garden-lore of Sam. The grots and rocky walls were already starred with saxifrages and stonecrops. Primeroles and anemones were awake in the filbert-brakes; and asphodel and many lily-flowers nodded their half-opened heads in the grass: deep green grass beside the pools, where falling streams halted in cool hollows on their journey down to Anduin.


The whistle playing of Brian Finnegan is truly fabulous, and none more so then on the middle tune, ‘Two for Joy’ in this set.

Hating judgement, desiring judgement

Lewis, in his commentary on the psalms, deals early on with one of most frequent confusions found in scripture and especially in the psalter. That is, the call for “judgement”.

If there is any thought at which a Christian trembles it is the thought of God’s “judgement”. The “Day” of Judgement is “that day of wrath”, that dreadful day”. We pray for God to deliver us “in the hour of death and at the day of judgement”. Christian art and literature for centuries have depicted its terrors. This note in Christianity certainly goes back to the teaching of Our Lord Himself; especially to the terrible parable of the Sheep and the Goats. This can leave no conscience untouched, for in it the “Goats” are condemned entirely for their sins of omission; as if to make us fairly sure that the heaviest charge against each of us turns not upon the things he has done but on those he never did – perhaps never dreamed of doing.

It is therefore with great surprise that I first noticed how the Psalmists talk about the judgements of God. They talk like this: “O let the nations rejoice and be glad, for thou shalt judge the folk righteously”, “Let the field be joyful…all the trees of the wood shall rejoice before the Lord, for he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth”. Judgement is apparently an occasion of universal rejoicing. People ask for it.

The solution to this puzzle is not difficult when we consider that the Jewish writers were nearly always speaking about “judgement” as it occurs in a court of law. It was assumed the judgement would be GOOD. The problem was getting INTO the court in the first place. Out in the world, you were subject to abuse by the rich and powerful. But if you could just get your case to be heard – just get your foot in the door of the court – the judge would put everything to right. You WANTED judgement because you weren’t getting it where you were. You were a slave and shouldn’t be – the judge would free you. Your house was stolen by a shyster – the judge would order it be given back. Someone was telling lies about you and there was nothing you could do about it – the judge would have those lies exposed and the speaker’s mouths shut. Everything was screwed up . If only you could get the judge’s attention, things would get straightened out.

Today, someone who “judges” another pronounces some kind of hateful disapproval of another. The condemnation is frequently implied to be unsubstantiated. That is, the judgement is assumed to be without reason, without logic, and sans love. A “righteous” judgement seems like an oxymoron, at least how it used on the street today in the west. The realm of formal law of course keeps the meaning more or less intact, but that is largely roped off from the public square.

When I was a young man, I was invited to a bible study down the hall from where I had just begun to live at the university. I decided to show up and discovered the text for the night was Matthew 7:1 (“Judge not, that ye not be judge.”) For the next 45 minutes I listened as the circle of attendees nodded their head and acknowledged that judging people was very, very bad – something one should never do, and something that Jesus thought was definitely not cool. We ended with a prayer asking Jesus to help us not judge other people. I bit my tongue from bringing up the fact that some context was worth considering.

Well, it turns out this particular bible study was run by liberal PCUSA Presbyterians, and what they meant by “don’t judge” was “don’t you dare say anything bad about what I’m doing”. What were they doing? It pretty much boiled down to having sex with a wide variety of different people, some even of the same gender as themselves. This was obviously a favorite passage of theirs. I’m afraid I didn’t visit that gathering again and eventually made other friends. For them, judgement was a thing to be feared and hated, like a volcano erupting in your back yard or an alien invasion. Jesus was good because it didn’t seem like he judged people in the modern sense. At least, he seemed to say nice stuff to people that goody-two-shoes were always looking down on. In a sense, they desired God because he DIDN’T judge them, contra the world who always did.

This is completely and utterly backwards from everything found in scripture, from the law to the prophets, to the gospels and the epistles. God judges the freaking heck out of the earth. In John’s revelation, his judgement is utter and total and powerful and crushing and indescribable. Sometimes He withholds judgement for a while, but it’s just pent up waiting to explode. “The day of the Lord great and very terrible. Who can endure it?” (Joel 2:11). The catch is, the judgement is GOOD, and the stuff you are subject to now – without a judge at hand? BAD.

For the one who hates or fears judgement, what you have now is the best things can get and your life goal, your striving, your activism, is to minimize judgement. You are glad to get a raise because now you can buy some nicer clothes and not have people give you strange looks at the office. You rejoice when the supreme court says it’s OK for you and your lesbian lover to get married. You throw a big party! One less person judging you. You are incrementally freer now! Relief. Love. Peace here and now.

For the one who loves judgement and yearns for the Lord’s coming, everything around them is transient and passing away – their chronic back pain, their dead-end job, their broken marriage. Maybe the scope is larger in some people’s minds. Everything is wrong. Heck, maybe even the entire nation is wrong – run by lying money grubbers. Maybe all the Earth and the environment is being trashed. Who will deliver us? A righteous judge who will come down from heaven and kick evil’s ass so hard it will never show it’s face in town again. That’s who. That is where our hope lies.

For one, the second advent of the Lord is an end of judging. A flooding over of all existing hate. Love wins. For the other, the second advent of the Lord is the zenith of judgement, the conquering of all evil so that only love remains permanently. A great white table, and a great white throne.

These are both, in their own way, comforting and hopeful images of God and the eschaton. The problem is, only one of them is found in scripture, and it’s remarkably consistent. The other idea comes from somewhere else entirely and has had mild success in the last century in appropriating some of the words of Christ toward it’s end. But in the heaven, we find a great white throne, not a great white table. And he who sits on the throne is our bread of life, given freely to even the beggars with not a single good thing to their name. Would that he come and make us rightful sons and daughters again.

Our time machine minds

It’s not his idea, but in a recent lecture I heard N.T. Wright allude to the notion that the human mind is a like a time machine. I believe this is true and would like to reflect on that.

We do not just inhabit the immediate present, but our memory allows us to travel back and relive events from our past. We do not just store scraps of information for retrieval later, but rather our memories take the shape of our own selves and bodies and when we recall them it is like stepping into something gone that still lives inside us.

On the other side, we have imaginations that continuously conjure up the future – both in the realm of the mundane and the fantastic. In fact, I think we so readily come up and rehearse so many possible scenarios, that it’s not unusual for the future of some particular to turn out exactly as we have envisioned it. We might call this a premonition if we want to speak of things slightly spooky. The scientist imagines what it would be like to be God, but having the imagination of a man, he creates a man-shaped God. The result? A multi-verse, where mathematical decision branches create an infinite number of worlds, but each with a long chain of DNA that could be traced back and explained.

In a way, our memories and imaginations are part of our imago dei – it is a way in which we are like God. He is infinite and all the past and future is contained in him. We are finite and yet we strrrreeeetch ourselves to cover ages before and after us – reliving, pondering, creating, and trying out new stories. The first thing we are told about God in Genesis is that he creates things, and we do the same – not just in the here and now or with our hands, but in the past and future, with our thoughts. In this regard, the difference is less one of quality and kind, but one of power and reach.

Attributing the uncanniness of our memories or imaginations as the result of reincarnation is not, I believe, a far-fetched idea. Flawed and contrary to revelation of course, but not an unreasonable conclusion. Contemplating the subject will lead nearly anyone to suspect something more is going on than simply the presence of a stimuli-response machine alone in our cranium. The very fact that our imaginings are often more vivid than our immediate surroundings is disconcerting enough to make one wonder if we are inhabiting improperly limited bodies in a fallen realm. Our hope is in a resurrection and a new life, but we need someone to give it to us.

Speaking of memories, Thomas Merton writes:

The “remembering” of God, of which we sing in the Psalms, is simply the rediscovery, in deep compunction of heart, that God remembers us. In a sense, God cannot be remembered. He can only be discovered.

We know Him because He knows us. We know Him when we discover that He knows us. Our knowledge of Him is the effect of His knowledge of us. The experience is always one of new wonder that He is mindful of us. “What is man that Thou are mindful of him? Or the son of man that Thou visitest him?” (Psalm 8:5)

Throughout the Old Testament, God tells Israel to remember His work in the past. This is not a command for them to keep certain pieces of learned information close at hand for recital, but rather an invitation to travel back in time and see the foreshadowing of their coming salvation, that their imaginations might not be darkened but sparked with hope. Many of the prophets “yearned to see what you are seeing” Jesus told the apostles (Matthew 13:17). That is, they probed the future with their imaginations, anticipating, painting possible images, filling in the sketchy details, fabricating possibilities, sometimes despairing, but then again driven to hope. They took their time machine minds to a future they could not know for certain. It is our lot to do the same for Christ’s second advent. We have been given all the right tools. Let us not lay them down in idleness with the nihilists and materialists. He has put eternity in our hearts. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)